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Divine Dread: IMMACULATE Unveils Religious Terror & Feminist Fury

Half a woman's face wearing nun garb that's bloodied.
Poster courtesy of NEON

By Amylou Ahava

IMMACULATE, directed by Michael Mohan and starring Sydney Sweeney, makes its world premiere at SXSW. It is a devilishly good horror flick that immaculately blends religious fervor with feminist fury. Mohan's direction conjures a visually stunning world and highlights the eerie and mysterious atmosphere of the convent. The film's exploration of female rage against the Catholic Church is both infuriating and empowering and makes the film a must-watch for horror fans who like a little nun in their exploitation. And, of course, Sydney Sweeney's performance in IMMACULATE is truly divine! Sweeney shines in her first horror role and embodies a character caught in the grip of the Catholic Church and patriarchy, and we see her struggles to make sense of her traumatic past and her unexpected divine calling. This film dives headfirst into the depths of female rage, delivering jump scares that hit the mark and a plot that (despite a couple of holes) keeps you praying for more.

The film immerses viewers in the unsettling world of Cecilia (Sweeney), a young American nun who seeks solace and purpose at a secluded Italian convent. Tasked with caring for elderly sisters in their final days, Cecilia's journey takes a bizarre turn when she discovers she is inexplicably pregnant (despite her sacred vow of chastity). The convent (steeped in tradition and fervent belief) led by Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) and Cardinal Franco Merola (Giorgio Colangeli) interprets Cecilia's pregnancy as an immaculate conception and a sign of divine intervention as well as the impending second coming of Christ. However, Cecilia grapples with doubt and confusion as she struggles to comprehend the miraculous circumstances surrounding her condition. As Cecilia's pregnancy progresses, tensions within the convent mount, with the young nun questioning the true nature of her situation and the intentions of those around her. She finds herself trapped between her faith and a growing sense of unease, which leads her to confront the strict rules and hidden secrets that shroud the convent's walls. As she delves deeper, Cecilia unravels a dark and sinister truth that challenges everything she believes in and forces her to make a fateful decision.

A nun sits behind a screen for confession.
Sydney Sweeney in IMMACULATE | Photo Courtesy of NEON

Initially, the film presents as a supernatural thriller and draws viewers in with its eerie ambiance and mysterious occurrences. However, the film cleverly shifts gears and delves into the darker themes seen within religious institutions. Much like Rosemary's Baby (1968), IMMACULATE uses supernatural elements to symbolize the insidious nature of patriarchal power (particularly within the Catholic Church). It skillfully navigates the complexities of faith and control and leaves audiences questioning the true motives of those in authority. Moreover, IMMACULATE pays homage to the stylistic flair of Dario Argento's films from the 70s and 80s and incorporates elements of blood-splattered Italian horror into its narrative. By blending these influences, the film offers a compelling and nuanced exploration of horror, faith, and female agency.

Furthermore, IMMACULATE doesn't just deliver scares, but it unleashes an absolute holy terror in its powerful third act. As the plot twists and turns like a possessed nun, the movie ramps up the horror to spine-chilling levels. The tension builds to a crescendo and leaves audiences anticipating the worst and praying for a resolution. And the final act is like a demonic rollercoaster, with a climax that is a true exorcism of fear when Sweeney's performance reaches a fever pitch. Sweeney's portrayal of Cecilia is a tour de force, showcasing her range and talent in a role that demands both vulnerability and ferocity. She truly shines in the film's climactic moments because just when you think you've seen it all, IMMACULATE delivers a rocking finale that is as shocking as it is satisfying. 

Overall,  IMMACULATE is a sinfully fun horror film that showcases Sydney Sweeney's potential as a powerful scream queen. Her performance as Cecilia is both endearing and captivating and elevates the film to new heights of terror. Sweeney's ability to convey both vulnerability and strength makes her a standout in the genre, and hopefully, we'll see her in more horror movies in the future. With its gripping story, eerie atmosphere, and memorable performances, IMMACULATE is a holy obligation for all horror fans. 

IMMACULATE arrives in theaters March 22, 2024.


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